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Class Warfare

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Six states &– Georgia, South Carolina, Mississippi, Indiana, Kentucky and Arizona &– also introduced similar “Religious Viewpoints Antidis­crim­i­na­tion” bills this year.

 Proponents claim these measures simply codify existing law to “protect” school boards in case they are sued.

As Kern’s co-sponsor, Rep. Mike Reynolds, said about the Oklahoma bill, “There’s nothing new about this bill. It makes it very clear that we agree with the Supreme Court.”

If that’s true, said AU’s State Legislative Counsel Dena Sher, the bills are pointless. The measures are unnecessary to protect truly voluntary student expression, she noted, so there must be more at stake.

“These bills ask schools to create a model policy that provides students a forum to say anything, including praying, proselytizing or quoting the Bible,” Sher said. “What they say will be deemed to be sponsored by the schools and that is unconstitutional.”

She added, “Schools have a responsibility to protect all students’ religious liberties &– not just those who hold ‘positions of honor’ and are chosen to speak. If a chosen speaker ended the morning announce­ments with a prayer to her ‘Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ,’ how will Jewish, Hindu or Muslim students feel? How will their parents react?”

That’s not the only threat out there. Several state legislatures are also considering so-called “academic freedom” bills that open the door to creationist concepts in the science classroom.

According to the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), the term “academic freedom” in the title or text of a bill is creationist code language. The terminology is used by groups such as the Discovery Insti­tute, a Seattle-based think tank that promotes “intelligent design” and coordinates these types of bills throughout the country.

By the end of last year’s legislative sessions, “academic freedom” measures were considered in Florida, Alabama, Missouri, Michigan and South Carolina.

Louisiana succeeded in passing its scheme, and teachers are now allowed to introduce “supplemental textbooks and other instructional materials” about evolution. The law also requires teachers to find “effective ways to help students understand, analyze, critique, and objectively review scientific theories being studied.”

“Academic freedom” was the creationist catch phrase in 2008, but this year, that term is not always present in the current crop of creationist bills, according to the NCSE’s Glenn Branch and Eugenie C. Scott in an article written for Scientific Ameri­can. And popular creationist code language &– such as asking schools to teach the “strengths and weaknesses” of evolution &– has now been replaced with even more abstract terminology concocted by the Discovery Institute and its allies.

So far, Americans United’s legislative department is tackling four bills in the “academic freedom” category: Oklahoma’s “Scientific Education and Academic Freedom Act” (SB 320), Iowa’s “Evolution Academic Free­dom” (HB 183),  Alabama’s “Aca­demic Free­dom Act ” (HB 300) and a measure in New Mexico (SB 433) that would allow teachers to inform students “about relevant scientific information regarding either the scientific strengths or scientific weaknesses” of evolution.

The political climate in some states makes defeating these anti-evolution measures an uphill battle, according to Victor Hutchison, professor emeritus in the zoology department of the University of Oklahoma.

Every year for the past 10 years, Hutchison has lobbied to stop these threats to science education in Okla­homa’s public schools. He is founder and the former president of Okla­homa Excellence in Science Educa­tion (OESE), a group that puts on workshops for science teachers to better prepare them for teaching evolution.

“I know of many instances where teachers in Oklahoma are afraid to teach evolution,” Hutchison said. “They never even mention the ‘E’ word for fear of parents, students or administrators….This isn’t going to stop being a problem in Oklahoma.”

That’s why Hutchison has written about this issue, passed out literature and talked to key legislators on the dangers of SB 320.

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Sandhya Bathhija writes for the Dayton Daily News, Dayton, Ohio.
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